“No one like the path-finder himself feels the immensity of the forest, or knows the accidentality of his own trails.”—William James
In June 1898, the philosopher and psychologist William James traveled by train and stage coach to Lake Placid, New York, and arranged to stay at the original Adirondak Loj, a baroque log pile a few miles outside the village at Heart Lake, in the Adirondack high peaks. The building had been designed and built on the shores of Heart Lake by Henry Van Hoevenberg, “Mr. Van,” an eccentric gnome who pioneered many of the hiking routes in the surrounding peaks, and who, according to James, wore buckskins, patent leather knee boots, and a six-shooter in a hog’s leg strapped to his thigh. Van Hoevenberg became James’s nurse, companion, and guide in the three-week period of reading, rest, and recuperation he passed there while trying to begin the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience.
James had been invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh that January. His Principles of Psychology, a shelf of volumes published in 1890, the first experimental study of its kind that described in detail how the mind and the emotions actually worked and affected behavior, had catapulted him to world attention. We are still absorbing many of its notions, some now burrowed into our common usage, such as the theory of association and the term “stream of consciousness” that became known more as a Modernist literary device than a central tenet of cognitive studies. (James had taught Gertrude Stein at Radcliffe.) Still, the invitation to participate in this distinguished theological series was an enormous honor for an American, and daunting for James since he intended to speak about religion as a universal phenomenon apart from Christian doctrine.
In the ultimate chapter of the Principles, “Philosophy and Psychology,” James had raised the doubt, based on the data and interpretation in the book, that all of consciousness could be located expressly in the physical/electrical processes in the brain (already a default assumption for scientists), and suggested that to penetrate the enigma of consciousness it might be necessary to enlist metaphysics in the effort, thinking of what he was doing as “an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly and consistently.” He fundamentally accepted that feeling and mental states existed, as a rock or carriage or mountain existed, and postulated “the flux of concrete experience” as the only reality we can ever know. He had been developing these ideas in essays in the middle 1890s, after the Principles were published, and in a religious philosophy course at Harvard. [End Page 85] Now with the lectures impending James still couldn’t reconcile their “existential and descriptive” elements, and he had come to the Adirondacks at the end of his Harvard semester hoping, finally, to figure them out.
“I have ended my work and am excessively fatigued,” he wrote to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson, his summer neighbor in Keene, New York, on June 18, while still in Cambridge. Prone to nervous collapse after teaching, and with a history of depression, James started coming down with a cold on the train from Massachusetts to Lake Placid. After settling in at the loj, now emptied of guests by the annual onslaught of black flies, he lay about reading Society of Friends founder George Fox’s autobiography and making no progress on the lectures. By June 28, however, he felt better and wrote to his wife, Alice, “I sleep all right, read a great deal, feel neither depressed, nor extra hearty and perfectly happy to let the days slip by one by one.” He took longish hikes into the adjacent mountains, alone and with Mr. Van, to Indian Pass and Algonquin Peak among others. He kept improving.
With no other guests present, Mr. Van and the old couple who ran the place doted on James. The clear air, the waxing moon, and the loj itself enhanced a sensation of timelessness. “The place is an absolute sanctuary; never was such a feeling of peace and security known. The old...